All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Raising the ghosts

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We were assembled at Madeleine's hospitable table, friends and family, French and British, for Sunday lunch and the aperitifs had been going the rounds...Suze, pineau, whisky and white port...while the clock ticked towards one o'clock. I had been asking about something that had been puzzling me...I was permitted use of the woods of the chateau up the road, and often used to walk there. A week back, I had seen something new - a very weathered stone cross erected in the main clearing. I hadn't seen the chateau owner to ask what it was about, and then a couple of days later, it had fallen down. Artisan francais again, I had thought. I was going to ask if anyone round the table had any idea what it was all about when the dog pricked up his ears as he heard his master's running feet on the pavement outside, and then barked as his master hurled himself through the portals in order to be at the table on time. Master had been winning at cards, but knew where his duty lay...lunch was serious business.
Someone commented on how good the dog was, especially as he could have been hoping to receive his master's portion if the one o'clock curfew had been breached and then a British friend said that his dog had rendered him good service during the week and proceeded to tell us his tale.
He was renovating a beautiful 'maison de maitre', a large, once elegant house which had been regarded as the best house in the commune, but which had fallen on hard times before he took it in hand. His companion was a little black dog who he had found on the road on Christmas Day who followed him everywhere around the house and garden. In the early hours of the morning, the little fellow had woken him, barking frantically, standing up on the bed defending his master. He heard sounds of heavy footsteps outside his bedroom door and got up to see what was going on,accompanied by the dog. Once out on the landing, he could still hear the footsteps, but this time up in the attic. Once there, they sounded from below again, and then from the ground floor as he ran up and down the stairs trying to pin point where they were coming from. Then the noise seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, whirling around him as he stood on the stairs before it suddenly stopped. The dog trotted back to bed and he was following when another noise started up. The door was open and he could see that there was nothing there, but the house was full of the noise of buckets of water being thrown against the walls of the bathroom, smashing and sluicing for what seemed a long time before it too, stopped and there was silence. He went to bed, reassured by the dog's lack of interest in proceedings, nothing further happened, and that was the end of the story.
Or it would have been, except that the next day he was talking to the old chap up the road, Gaston, a man who was cordially detested by all his neighbours as he could and would defend his rights with the force of law, custom or a shotgun as he felt the occasion demanded. However, as a new arrival and a foreigner, our friend was accepted by Gaston, who was always ready to help out with advice and assistance. He recounted his tale, expecting derision, but Gaston just took him into the house for a drink and began to explain the history of the house he had bought.

It had belonged to one of the families of local bigwigs in the inter war period, and the man in possession just before the 1939 - 1945 war had been a big spender. He bought himself an aeroplane which he would land on the lawns in front of the house from the proceeds of a thriving wine business, had a lot of agricultural property and had married a woman with money. His uncle was maire of the commune, and he was regarded as a pillar of the community. What the community didn't know was that this pillar was a different chap once he was out of their sight in Paris on 'business' trips. Then it was wine, women and song and money no object.
As an aside, it strikes me life must have been pretty stultifying in rural France, for anyone with any money seemed to be off up to Paris as often as they could to get away from it all. A friend told me that her uncle had managed to lose the family chateau after too many visits to Paris during which, mysteriously, he had been offering Mistinguette - a music hall star - vast amounts of money 'to sit in his car'.
The war was a godsend to our big spender, who was beginning to get through his fortune. He supplied eau de vie in quantity to the German occupiers and, as all my informants agreed, the Germans might have requisitioned, but they also always paid. The money was rolling in, smart cars were being bought and life was good. He was in good odour with the occupiers. The fancy took him to make a drive from the main road to the house, the old fashioned courtyard entrance not being to his liking, and, I suppose, the 'plane having been grounded for the duration. In the depths of winter, he obtained forced labour and dynamite to blast the frozen ground and level the new approach. It had all disappeared by our friend's time, but he could still see the trace of it where the ground dried out faster than its' surroundings in the heat of summer.
He wasn't the only one making money. A crony who owned the brickworks was making a pile, his neighbour was also in on the eau de vie supplies and there was always the black market. As Gaston explained, a lot of farmers before the war were tenants, subject to crushing leases, but such were their profits from the black market that after the war they could afford to buy out their leases and become independent. Bigger fish could make even more money, while the poor devils of women whose husbands were POWs, or who had been young enough to have been taken up for forced labour in Germany, were trying to keep the farms going singlehandedly or were going under.

All was going swimmingly, until the Allies had the lack of tact not to be thrown back into the sea in the summer of 1944. There had always been a Resistance in France, not numerous, mostly independent groups or Communist trade unionists, but in existence, and they began to make their presence felt. Not comfortable for those with big contracts with the Germans...and not comfortable for de Gaulle, by now recognised as leader of the Free French. The last thing he wanted was to have France liberated by foreign armies with the assistance of a Communist underground! The right thinking were encouraged to form groups and received arms in order to make a political counterweight to the Communists' very real claims to have been the only organised Resistance in France during the dark years of the Vichy regime.
Well, the big spender was right thinking, and, with his cronies and followers, swiftly became a 'Resistant', as the Germans began to pull back out of the area. However, as Gaston explained, there was a problem. While the big spender could proclaim his house a Resistance centre, and could proclaim himself the local Resistance leader, his history was well known and he decided that he must shut the mouths of the dissidents.
In a farm on the other side of the commune lived a youngish man, classed too weak for the forced labour drafts, who had acted as a courrier for the Resistance unit based in the railway works in the next large town. As the Germans retreated, his role became acknowledged...drinks in the bar, etc...and the big spender decided that this was going to be his example. He had the man lured to the house and locked into the outhouses. Whether things got out of control, whether drink had a part to play, whether it was all premeditated, Gaston did not know, but the man was tortured, his ear cut off and sent to his home and he was murdered, his body being buried in the woods in the next commune.

Well, the big spender survived untouched....but he never prospered. His cronies did, going on to bigger and better things in postwar France, but he could not change his ways and a lot of people were reluctant to deal with him given the rumours circulating. His business went downhill, he sold off his property, he sold his wife's property, and ended up in a small house down the road from the scenes of his glory, known to the commune as 'the man who ate three houses'. His wife was a recluse, his two sons were unemployable, except by the maire, daughter of a crony, who gave one a job as a roadsweeper, but being, as Guy remarked, 'allergic to dust', even influence could not keep him the job.

Retribution, then, down over the years?

That was the end of our friend's story, but Madeleine's cousin took over. A quiet man, who collected moths for the national scientific body, he had been a he said, a bit by accident. As a youth, he had been caught by the French police putting up rude posters about the Germans and had been handed over for a bit of rough treatment. So rough, in fact, that one ear was almost completely missing and he was partly deaf. Released, he was adopted by the group run by the doctors at the local hospital, and did his part. Not, that he always said, that that was much. He did what he could, usually passing messages. He never mentioned the risks he had I say, a quiet man.
He and a group of old Resistants had been gathering together the accounts of everyone who had taken part in the movement locally, and he, as the archivist, knew something which linked the two stories.
Yes, the murdered man had been the chateau woods. In the clearing where I had seen the cross. In rural France, everything is seen, it is just not generally commented upon. The man's cousin had taken the man's dogs and they had found the body of their master which was dug up and given proper burial - complete with the ear.
In another account, details were suitably airbrushed. The group to which the young man had belonged were lose a colleague after the Germans had left, and then in such a fashion! They had ambushed the big spender's bailiff, the man who had lured the young man to his doom, taken him to the clearing and shot him. His family were told where to collect the body.

'Why didn't they shoot the big spender, or his cronies? Why go for the bailiff?'

The cousin explained that if the big spender had been shot, the repercussions would have been enormous...the gendarmerie would have been at full stretch to catch someone who attacked an important man...whereas, for the bailiff......
Oh, and as for my idea that the cross had been incompetently put up...nothing of the sort. He was well abreast of local gossip and the grapevine had been agog when, with a new owner at the chateau, the bailiff's family had wanted to put up a memorial and the owner had agreed. Local opinion disagreed. It was thrown down the next day and if it were to be put up again, the same fate would await it.

The U.K. was never occupied by the Germans and it is presumptuous of anyone who did not live through an enemy occupation to say how people could or should have acted, but if there had been something like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the war instead of the propaganda trumpeting how every Frenchman was in the Resistance, and vindictively shaving the heads of women denounced as 'fraternising' with the Germans, perhaps the anger nurtured for more than fifty years would have been dissipated earlier.

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  1. Can only agree. The problems with "reconcilliation" are still evident today in Spain. There is a movement to recognise victims of the civil war (ie. people hauled from their beds and killed in the dark of night to be buried in mass graves) and a movement which denounces this as opening old wounds and fomenting conflict. Probably no need to say that the former are people who "lost" the civil war, and the latter are the people who "won".

  2. Pueblo girl, I've been following what is happening in Spain with interest. The problem is the sort of 'victor's justice' which follows conflicts and which is supposed to put the lid on everything. It doesn't and things fester under the surface for years. That's why I thought what happened in South Africa was such a civilised solution. Not perfect, but better than victor's justice.

  3. That is a great story but I would never want to sleep in that house! I hope we do get to meet the grandmother (of our friends) who was in the Resistance some day. Since she is also a Communist then I bet her story is real.
    We got back from France to the insane battles going on here about health care reform. I can't help but feel that France and Sweden and the other countries with health care have worked out a saner way of life. I loved France, I love my home in New Hampshire too but the anxiety and craziness in the US is bizarre. The day we got home there was a letter in our local paper about how reforming health care in this country so everyone would have it would be leading us down the evil path to socialism. And then you read the arguments once posed against Social Security and Medicare and it is the same thing. It's insane. I don't get it.
    How much does it cost to buy health insurance in France? One woman wrote that her husband had treatment for cancer and it cost 8,000 dollars. Here, honestly, you would be bankrupt. And, you might go bankrupt even with insurance. That's the problem with the American system, insurance companies are for profit business who make money if they don't pay for care and lose money if they do.

  4. Zuleme, American friends give me stories about U.S. healthcare that make my blood chill far more than sleeping in that house ever would!
    Health is not for profit and any system that treats it as if it is is corrupt...that's my view.
    I'm not sure how you would get French healthcare in the national system...I think you have to be recognised as a resident to qualify...but private insurance if you have no existing conditions can be cheap...not from French companies, but from U.K. ones. That covers your bills in France for major items, but not for visits to the doctor or for drugs.
    Go on fighting in the is a scandal the way health is regarded as a commodity that you either can or can't afford.

  5. Thank you so much for telling this story. You're so right that anyone who hasn't been in an enemy occupation can't begin to say how people could or should have acted.

    The term you used, "victor's justice" is also a very telling one.

  6. Mary Ann Gruen, it's not a pretty story, but life isn't pretty in a society under strain and so many stories of France pass over the realities of this period. I was lucky to hear so much, but then I was living among ordinary country people who, then as now, were just trying to keep their heads above water.
    Victor's justice is not too pretty either. Nor is it effective in the long run.

  7. My husband in Swedish so, if we ever decide to live in Europe again (we lived in Sweden when we were first married) we would have access to Swedish health care.
    But we'll go on fighting for decency here. We have his parents living with us and we have a good business here so right now Europe is just for, probably rare, vacations.
    But I have gorgeous photos I have to start posting and lots of great memories from our trip. I loved France but when you're on vacation you're in an unreal, lovely world of no worries. We needed it!

  8. Zuleme, look forward to seeing the photographs. It's a long time since we toured France!
    Why are people so worried in the U.S.about having a system that provides more people with better access to healthcare?
    There has to be something I'm missing.

  9. Dear Fly, I think the whole health care debate is carefully staged by political opponents and special interest groups to simply prey on the fears of the public.

    To tell the fearful that a national health care scheme, would lead to a panel to decide whether or not you could receive treatment- and then deciding NOT to treat a patient, is very frightening to most people.

    Of course that is currently what exists with private for profit insurance companies, but for some reason the hype is protecting the businesses and scoring deep wounds in the health care initiative.

    I believe it might have something to do with the large sums of money backing the anti-health care people (the pharmaceutical industry, for one stands to lose BIG time) which unfortunately IS what makes the world go 'round- at least in the USA. (tho I'm pretty sure everywhere else as well.)

    Sadly too, the current climate of insanity is also aimed at Obama, who is black. Racism still plays a part in the makeup of the country's demographic. (ie: anything the Black guy wants is probably going to be bad for all the White lets protest and hate it all!)

    Hopefully we can all rise above the fray, and consensus will be reached and health care will be available to all Americans.

  10. truestarr, I had had no idea that that was how the debate was being wicked it seems!